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Unique Tribute to a Beloved Teacher
Hedges Elementary School receives new library sculpture
Tyler Otto, left, browses books in the Hedges Elementary School library where the recently unveiled "Roxie Tree," right, is on display. The sculpture was created by Wendy Armstrong and dedicated to her sister Roxie Lehl, a retired Hedges third-grade teacher. - Lido Vizzutti/Flathead Beacon
A group of fourth-graders from Hedges Elementary School erupted with applause in the school’s library, their enthusiasm barely contained as they hooted their approval.

There was cake at the early afternoon celebration, but it was not the cause for such raucous enjoyment. Instead, the focus of their young, infectious energy was Roxie Lehl, a recently retired Hedges third-grade teacher who, after 34 years on the job, knows how to handle a boisterous room of young students.

The kids and their teachers gathered on April 28 for the dedication of a sculpture for the library, created by Lehl’s sister, Wendy Armstrong, in Lehl’s honor. It celebrates Lehl’s love for reading, creativity and Hedges Elementary, Armstrong said.

Named “Roxie Tree” and made of stainless steel and bronze, the sculpture is a shiny tree decorated with items all based on Lehl and her teaching years. Lehl often wore a “big, goofy pin” everyday to teach, so the tree has several hanging from its swirly, steel branches. There are other decorations, including miniature copies of Lehl’s favorite books and characters.

The base of the sculpture was crafted from an old, steel chair and is painted with sayings, such as “Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, because he reads” and “Jack and Jill went up the hill – to the library!”

The trunk of the tree was made from structural steel and has uniquely decorated magnets with which students can hang their book reviews.

There are several bookshelves built into the trunk as well, so favorite tomes can easily be displayed and found. The whole sculpture is meant to be interactive and to be touched, Armstrong said. It can even bend to fit anywhere.

“I just think my sister did an absolutely fabulous job,” Lehl said. “I’m so honored.”

A metal artist based in Vancouver, Wash., Armstrong said the school contacted her to help commemorate her sister’s decades of work. The original order was for a plaque, but Armstrong said it sounded pretty dry.

“A plaque is boring, so how about a sculpture?” Armstrong remembered thinking.

“This is my idea of a plaque,” she added, putting the finishing touches on the metal tree.

The kids’ attendance to the dedication was a surprise, Lehl said, and she was visibly moved when they began filing into the room and rushing over to give her hugs and chat about memories from third grade.

“I am very deeply touched,” Lehl told the crowd. “I look at (the tree) now and it just makes me laugh.”

The tree received obvious approval from the kids, who proclaimed that along with her many attributes, Lehl has the best character voices when she reads aloud. By the end of the dedication, the students were reciting familiar poems they learned under Lehl’s tutelage.

Armstrong said she wasn’t surprised by Lehl’s popularity. She described her sister as “beloved” by her students and said she is constantly recognized by former pupils.

Eventually, the carrot cake was served and the students were herded back to their classrooms, but not before swarming Lehl with hugs once again. After the kids left, Lehl inspected the tree with her sister, teary eyed and smiling.

“I am just very humbled,” Lehl said. “I’m just in awe.”
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